Convocation 2009

Jan Mieszkowski
Associate Professor of German & Humanities

The Tears of Odysseus

Mieszkowski image
Jan Mieszkowski

Over the millennia, many positive things have been said about Odysseus. He has been praised for his cunning and his wisdom. He has been called an exemplary leader, a masterful orator, and a great ambassador for his people. Lauded as the ultimate survivor, someone who knows how to learn from every curveball life throws his way, he has also been celebrated as a loving husband and father and a man dedicated to his friends and the gods.

Over the millennia, many negative things have been said about Odysseus. He has been deemed self-indulgent and cowardly, someone who is always willing to let underlings do the dirty work for him. He has been called the prototype of the modern colonizer, a man who regards the world and the people, animals, and resources he finds there as playthings to be used and discarded at his whim. A tireless defender of both his plunder and his right to plunder, Odysseus has also been critiqued for his love of private property and for his steadfast allegiance to the belief that some individuals are simply better than others.

Whatever we ultimately decide about these contradictory characterizations of our hero, one fact remains incontrovertible: Odysseus is a crybaby. When we first encounter him in Book 5 of the Odyssey, the beautiful nymph Calypso has gone to look for the man she holds captive and forces to have sex with her every night. She finds him “there on the headland, sitting, still / weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away / with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home, / since the nymph no longer pleased.”1 Lest we wrongly imagine that our captive protagonist just happens to be having a particularly bad day, the poet immediately adds that “all his days he’d sit on the rocks and beaches, / wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish, / gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears.”2 In commenting on this scene, one would normally say that this great outpouring of emotion demonstrates the strength of Odysseus’s ties to his family, his homeland, and his past; and from there, one might move on to discuss the implications of these bonds for our broader understanding of the Homeric hero and of ancient Greek culture in general. In my remarks today, I want to take a different approach and invite you to dwell with me on the act of crying itself. I want us to think about what crying is, about what it means, and about how it is similar to or different from the other things that the characters in Homer’s poem do.

Long before any of us could talk or walk, we were all accomplished tear factories, so there is a tendency to treat whimpers and sobs as very simple things, straightforward expressions of internal agitation or disequilibrium: You hurt, you are hungry, you perceive anxiety—so you cry. It’s effectively a reflex. On the other hand, we are eminently familiar with the ways in which crying is not merely reactive. By the time we’ve reached an age when we’re conscious of ourselves as beings who cry, our tears inevitably go beyond the purely physiological and involve complex feelings, ideas, and memories. Not only are our tears often not just the mechanical expression of a sensation to which they have no essential connection, but they may be productive in their own right, inspiring many different thoughts or emotions in the one who weeps or in anyone who happens to be watching.

The cultural mores and customs informing the many meanings of tears are so intricate that it is hard to take stock of them, and this is not even to mention the numerous moral injunctions floating about concerning when we should and should not start tearing up if we want to look appropriately sensitive, concerned, or respectful. Where manly men like Odysseus are concerned, we citizens of the twenty-first century have a particularly odd perspective on the conventions surrounding weepy behavior. The tough guy code embodied by Hollywood figures such as Clint Eastwood or Vin Diesel is hardly the historical norm. In the Western literary tradition, from Beowulf to the Song of Roland, from Sophocles and Aeschylus to the modern theater and later the European novel, there are lots of tears shed by big boys with big weapons. Even in this broader context, however, Odysseus’s opening display of emotion is extreme. Achilles and Oedipus weep over lost loved ones, in Shakespeare’s Caesar Brutus cries and is proud of it, Brontë tells us that manly tears trickle down Rochester’s cheeks, and even Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo mists up a bit now and then, but none of these guys bawls like a baby, all day, every day, day after day.

So what is actually happening with Odysseus when we initially see him? The poet explains that not only is our hero ruing his captivity and his failed journey home, but his very life is flowing out of him. Now we are certainly familiar with the purgation model of sorrow. A good cry is supposed to make us feel better, but in this instance, the remedy doesn’t seem to be working: Odysseus is expelling everything inside himself except his grief. Indeed, the main point of the first description of him is that there is no obvious limit to how much crying he’s capable of, and in this regard, we should recall that his captor Calypso is planning to make him her immortal husband, so what we are looking at here is the prospect of an eternity of tears all day, sex with the beautiful nymph at night, tears all day, sex with the beautiful nymph at night, and so on.

Of course, we, like Odysseus’s foes, underestimate his cunning at our own risk, so perhaps we should consider whether his suffering has a strategic function. We all know people, children and adults, who have the ability to cry on cue to get what they want. It can be a very useful negotiating strategy. If this is the explanation for Odysseus’s behavior when we first see him, however, it’s not working, either. All his crying does not move Calypso to let him go home: she only releases him when she’s ordered to by Zeus, and while he is roused to action by Athena’s plea on Odysseus’s behalf, Zeus praises our hero for his wisdom and his devotion to the gods, but he says nothing that would indicate that it’s the intensity of Odysseus’s expressions of grief that is prompting divine action to get him back to Ithaca. Furthermore, if in crying Odysseus is seeking to win sympathy from the denizens of Mount Olympus, it’s unusual that this point is not explicitly made, as would normally be the case in the poem.

Should we just conclude that a superman like Odysseus does everything in an extraordinary fashion, that is, he works hard, he plays hard, and he cries hard? Maybe it’s just as simple as: He’s really sad, so he’s really weepy . . . . I actually want to go in the opposite direction and argue that Odysseus’s incessant sobbing on Calypso’s island contrasts starkly with the other kinds of things Odysseus has done and will do. Usually when a Homeric character acts or declines to act—whether it is a matter of attacking a foe, offering a sacrifice to the gods, or making a deal with a fellow warrior—there are consequences, both immediately and in the longer term. Here on the beach, however, all this crying is curiously ineffectual; for something done by a great warrior, it has remarkably little utility or consequence. It would be too simple to call his sobbing passive—Odysseus is clearly doing something, but whatever it is, it’s entirely unlike the other heroic practices we encounter in this poetic universe. In fact, I might go so far as to argue that the reason the poem can’t start with this scene of Odysseus on the island and has to warm up to it for four books or so is that it is no easy task to integrate Odysseus’s radical weeping into the broader narrative.

In fact, the poem starts to prepare us for the crying Odysseus in its very first book, when his son Telemachus is visited by Athena and told to start acting like a grown-up. Show some backbone, the goddess urges him, stand up to the suitors, and go out and look for news of your father rather than sitting around like a helpless child (like your father, on Calypso’s island . . .). It will come as no surprise to the parents in the audience today that Telemachus’ first act born of his newfound “maturity” is to tell his mother to shut up. This happens when the suitors are sitting in the great hall and being entertained by a famous bard who is relating none other than the story of the Greeks’ journey home from Troy. At this moment, Penelope walks in and, “suddenly, dissolving in tears and bursting through / the bard’s inspired voice, [she] cried out: Sing something else.! . . . . Break off this song . . . the unforgettable grief, it wounds me most of all!”3 Even for those of you who are not prone to flights of literary-critical fancy, the self-reflexive nature of this passage should be obvious. Here at its opening, Homer’s poem confronts us with a scene in which its own content, the story of the Greek warriors’ return, is being presented to an eager audience—the suitors, us—but the tale is harshly interrupted and then condemned for its power to wound its listeners. Penelope is the member of your new Hum 110 conference who cannot do the reading without suffering unduly; and she maintains, furthermore, that her reaction is justification enough for the bard to change stories (or for the professors to change the syllabus).

Now it is entirely banal to say that Homer’s Odyssey is a story about relating stories. There are countless scenes in the poem in which storytelling is shown to be as powerful an act as throwing a spear, tricking a monster, or building a boat. What is not normally noticed, however, is that this opening passage directly links storytelling to crying, and in a very curious way. In response to his mother’s plea that someone change the music, as it were, Telemachus sharply rebukes her: “Why, mother . . . why deny / our devoted bard the chance to entertain us / any way the spirit stirs him on? / Bards are not to blame— / Zeus is to blame.”4 Telemachus’ remarks rely on a number of ideas about life and art that are anything but uncontroversial, either in the Homeric world or today. First of all, he suggests that we can distinguish sharply between the entertainment function of a story and the seriousness of its content. This is why you should be able to read a book about a lot of people excitedly killing a lot of other people and not have to apologize for being a psycho when you admit that you enjoyed it. The second important claim Telemachus makes is that bards only tell the story, whereas it is the gods who in effect write it—and although I don’t want to go into this in any detail, you might think about whether there are moments in the poem when someone both tells the tale and writes it at the same time. In this regard, it is important to remember, as Telemachus himself notes, that bards do not even choose which story to tell, rather they are stirred by the poetic spirit to give voice to what it inspires within them. Finally, and potentially most interestingly, Telemachus enjoins his mother to harden her heart and stop narcissistically acting as if the story of the Greeks’ journey home was all about her and her troubles since it wasn’t just Odysseus who suffered after the fall of Troy. Like some of us who want to be able to interpret everything we read as though it were a commentary on our own lives, Penelope reacts to the poem in a very private way, and, disobeying her son’s command, she continues doing so by going back to her room and—you guessed it—crying herself to sleep.

So who wins this clash between storytelling and crying with which Homer’s Odyssey begins? In general terms, according to the wisdom of the newly mature Telemachus, it is storytelling that is the victor—an obvious point, perhaps, since it’s not as if Homer’s poem ends with this initial scene. In this particular instance, however, it is arguable that crying wins: not only does Penelope interrupt the bard with her tears, but when she goes off to weep away the night, the bard in the great hall doesn’t continue with his story because a huge argument breaks out between Telemachus and the suitors. In other words, Homer’s poem starts in one direction and then is somehow sent off down a slightly different path because someone couldn’t keep from crying.

Of course, if one of Telemachus’ main points about bards is that they are stirred by the poetic spirit and cannot control themselves, then perhaps Penelope, with her outpouring of grief, is a bard in her own right, an interpretive inference encouraged by several other motifs in the book, most famously Penelope’s weaving. This would suggest that what we see in this opening scene in the great hall is not a clash between poetry and crying, but a clash between two different kinds of poetry: the kind that feeds on watery eyes and the kind that doesn’t. Does this mean, then, that when we first encounter Odysseus on the shores of Calypso’s island he is actually engaging in the truest form of poetic labor: the pure unadulterated shedding of tears? Is Odysseus’s super-sobbing a unique form of storytelling that no other bard in the epic can rival?

The possibility that crying and storytelling may work together hand in hand comes up again in a scene in Book Eight of the poem. Here we find that Odysseus, still trying to make his way home, has found refuge in the court of Alcinous, the King of the Phaeacians. Importantly for what will follow, Odysseus has not yet told his hosts who he really is. At one point in the evening, a masterful bard is singing the story of the Greeks’ conquest of Troy, and Odysseus, evidently less afraid of the tale than his wife, asks the poet to tell them the part about the Trojan horse. The bard complies, relating in brilliant fashion the details of Odysseus’s own greatest victory, and

. . . great Odysseus melted into tears,
. . . .
as a woman weeps, her arms flung round her darling husband,
a man who fell in battle, fighting for town and townsmen,
. . . .
Seeing the man go down, dying, gasping for breath,
[the woman] clings for dear life, screams and shrills—
but the victors, just behind her,
digging spear-butts into her back and shoulders,
drag her off in bondage, yoked to hard labor, pain,
and the most heartbreaking torment waters her cheeks.
So from Odysseus’ eyes ran tears of heartbreak now.5

Having asked for and received the story he wrote himself in his finest hour as a warrior, Odysseus responds to the tale by crying like a woman who is clinging to her dying husband’s body as his vanquishers drag her off into slavery. In answering the bard with tears, our hero is transported across both gender lines and the border between winner and loser, since of course he sacked Troy and enslaved its women, and not the other way around. Through his reaction, Odysseus is in effect divided from his identity as the protagonist of the Trojan horse narrative and recast in a subordinate role: he becomes one of his own countless victims. At the same time, Odysseus’s tears also serve as the impetus for him to reveal his true identity to his hosts, for the King observes his guest’s sorrowful reaction to the story and calls on him to explain why this particular tale touches him so deeply. In other words, by responding to the bard by crying, Odysseus loses his identity in the story being told about him, but it is precisely through this loss that he comes into his own as someone who can now tell his own story all by himself. And what a story it is. Replying to the King’s query, Odysseus relates the lengthy narrative that contains his most famous adventures: the Cyclops episode, the journey to the kingdom of the dead, Scylla and Charybdis, and the debacle with the cattle of sun. It is as if Homer’s poem could only find its stride once its central figure had responded to a poem about him with his own poem of tears.

To bring these meditations on crying to an end, I want to look briefly at one more scene of watery eyes. In Book Sixteen, when Odysseus and Telemachus are reunited and the parent has finally convinced the child that he is who he says he is, “Telemachus threw his arms / around his great father, sobbing uncontrollably / as the deep desire for tears welled up in both.”6 As if this extreme outpouring of emotion weren’t enough, the poet adds that father and son start making shrill sounds like furious birds of prey, and in fact they would have kept on with these bestial outbursts until sunset if Telemachus hadn’t suddenly pulled himself together and asked his father what ship had brought him there, whereupon his father answers, ‘Oh sure, I’ll tell you the whole story.’ Once you start wailing and moaning, there is a danger that you, like Odysseus on Calypso’s island, won’t be able to stop, unless, of course, someone gives you the chance to relate a good yarn. But perhaps even more interesting in this passage is the statement: “the deep desire for tears welled up in both.” This exact phrase recurs at a number of other key moments in the poem (for instance, when Odysseus and Penelope are reunited). What does it mean that tears themselves are described as an object of desire, and why are they presented in this way only after the real object of desire (the reunion between father and son or between husband and wife) has been realized? Is the point that in this book the urge to achieve something is always accompanied by a second urge to mark that achievement with poetic weeping? Or is the point rather that in getting what she wants the Homeric character finds that she wants to lose herself again, and, like poets, be moved by forces that are not entirely in her control? In conclusion, I would suggest that the lust for tears reveals that in the Homeric world desire always has two parts: one hopes to act in a way that will be the basis for a grand narrative of famous exploits; and at the same time, one hopes to act in a way that will not be so easy to fit into the frame of a stable narrative because one desires, perhaps impossibly, to write the story as well as to star in it. The question I will leave you with is whether it is crying or storytelling that best meets this twofold demand, assuming, of course, that we can still tell crying and storytelling apart.

  1. Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 1996), 157.
  2. Ibid.
  3. 88.
  4. 88-89.
  5. 208.
  6. 345.